Three Days in Mexico on the Trail of La Carrera Panamericana

Between 1950 and 1954, La Carrera Panamericana was known as one of the most challenging and deadly of the open road races popular in the era. Envisioned as a way to publicize the freshly finished near-2,200-mile north-south Mexican segment of the Pan-American Highway, the stage race was funded by the Mexican government as a way of attracting attention to the new business opportunities afforded by the new highway.

Unfortunately, it also proved to be at least as dangerous as similar events held in Europe, including the Targa Florio and Mille Miglia. Challenging roads with uneven surfaces, plenty of natural hazards and vertical roadside drop-offs all conspired to keep racers from reaching the finish line. The inaugural 1950 race saw four people die, including one spectator. The next year, four more drivers died, including the mayor of the Mexican city of Oaxaca. “Just” one driver perished in the 1952 running, then in 1953 a total of nine people were killed and in the final 1954 event, seven more met their ends, including four drivers, two spectators and a mechanic.

Today’s La Carrera Panamericana revival event, established in 1988, is run as a stage race, similar to the original, but with a combination of “speed” stages and “transit” stages. The speed stages are run closest to the original event, with entrants simply trying to get from point A to point B in the shortest amount of time by driving flat out along the mostly winding roads that pass through small villages, along mountain roads with steep drop-offs, and through wooded sections of forest. The transit stages are run as a time-speed-distance (TSD) rally, with driver and navigator attempting to finish a stage at a specific time, which represents the designated average speed they are to attain over the mileage of the stage. The combination of scoring in both of these types of stages determine the overall winner. La Carrera Panamericana, like the Isle of Man TT motorcycle race, is an event completely unique to itself and recalls motorsports from a very different era.

We attended the first three days of this year’s seven-day, 3,272-km (2,033-mile) race from Oaxaca to Durango with luxury watch brand Tag Heuer, who’s Carrera series of mechanical watches has been inspired by the namesake race since the 1960s. Tag Heuer is also a major Carrera Panamericana event sponsor, as well as the sponsor of an individual team. Tag Heuer drivers Hilaire and Laura Damiron are a husband and wife team competing in a 1954 Studebaker Commander Starlight (nicknamed ‘El Commander’), though little remains of the original car besides the roof and doors. A customized chassis and suspension, massive Wilwood brakes, a stripped and modified cabin, composite body panels and a NASCAR –derived Chevy V-8 engine tuned to some 700 horsepower give a more accurate picture of a car that is anything but stock.

The Damirons are in good company, with several other Studebakers in contention for the overall win, among BMW 2002s, Porsche 911 and 356s, Ford and Shelby Mustangs, a Volvo 122S Amazon, a classic Mini Cooper, and a 1950s Buick Century, among others. There’s even two more modern classes filled with BMW M cars and contemporary Mini Coopers, all with full roll cages and plenty of race modifications.

Hilaire, a former motorcycle racer in his native France, says the Studebaker’s Raymond Lowey-penned style with superb aerodynamics for the era give it an advantage over other models in this fast, less-limited race class. In fact, Studebakers have won nearly every event since La Carrera’s resurrection in 1998. The Damirons’ car was custom built in 2013 specifically to contest this event and the team is looking for another victory this year after winning the race outright in 2016.

Unfortunately, the weather isn’t cooperating. Most of the 40-odd cars entered in La Carrera Panamericana arrive on tires that are virtually racing slicks, but heavy rain is forecast for most of the event. While the qualifying day remains dry, the rain hits hard on the first day of stage racing with torrential downpours and some minor flooding in the host city of Oaxaca. The last stage of the day ends up being canceled due to the conditions and several competitors have gone off the road by day’s end. At least one car, a modern race-tuned Mini Cooper S, is done for good with significant damage after going straight off an embankment when the brakes failed. Both driver and co-driver were unharmed.

Conditions improve the next day, which dawns sunny and dry as we head out on a route bound from Oaxaca to Mexico City. The day starts with several speed stages and we’re handed the keys to a 2018 Mini Cooper Countryman to pre-run the stage behind event officials just minutes before the racers depart.

Because the racers will be gaining on us once they begin, we’re warned that speed must be kept up to avoid falling back into the race pack. Challenge accepted. Our car is fairly pedestrian, with an automatic transmission, all-season run-flat tires and about 130 horsepower, but we’ve got a secret weapon—Chris Gil, a professional rally navigator based in Puebla, Mexico. Our Spanish is abysmal, but Chris speaks excellent English and soon we’re off wringing out the little Mini on the hillside roads that lead to Mexico City.

The event route book has each stage mapped out with corner-by-corner instructions given, including intensity (0 being fastest—flat out—and 4 being a sharp hairpin requiring lots of braking). Chris says that most of the top teams pre-run the stages and create their own customized turn-by-turn notes, but there’s no time for that so we do the best we can with the “generic” route book. Driving a slow car quickly is more fun than it sounds, especially when given a closed road in the hills outside of Oaxaca and a navigator that is describing what’s coming up ahead with good accuracy. As the stages progress, we fall into a rhythm—Chris keeping excellent pace notes and us just keeping the car on the road and away from the sharp cliff side to our left while trying to maintain all the speed we can.

As they’d done during the original 1950s Carrera Panamericana, locals scrambled up hillsides, spectated in turn outs and generally cheered the cars on from the side of the roads. As we entered small villages along the route, the citizens would be waiting for the cars to arrive, clapping, giving “thumbs-up” signs, and offering high fives to any cars approaching close enough. The spirit of the original race is truly alive and well for this historic recreation and it’s a big deal to these rural townsfolk.

We survive the high-adrenaline speed stages and move on to the day’s big transit stage—roughly 200 km northwest across primarily three-lane highway to Mexico City. We jump into a fast-moving group of race entrants and try to keep up, but it’s clear that doing so would be hazardous to our health. Despite the mild average speed required to arrive on time, many drivers are still in speed stage mode, weaving in and out of heavy traffic (transit stages don’t have the advantage of closed roads) and driving well over the posted speed limits. We’re told that the Carrera Panamericana decals plastered on our car are described to us by one person as essentially a “license to kill,” and both local police and Los Federales turn a blind eye to shenanigans by participants, unless they end in an accident.

Entering Mexico City, we’re given a hero’s welcome, with a full police escort into the center of town, where again the roads are closed to traffic and spectators line the streets four or five people deep in spots, to cheer on these modern Panamericana warriors.

While we’re heading home the next morning, the racers will continue on for five more days of organized chaos as they attempt to win the 2018 running of La Carrera Panamericana and have their names written in the history books. When the event concludes, we learn Hilaire and Laura Damiron have won the final 15 speed stages, but still finished second overall. Not the result they were hoping for, but something tells us they’ll be back next year. We hope we are too.

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